UCU To Ballot For Nationwide Industrial Action

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Birkbeck College UCU members on the picket line
Birkbeck College UCU members on the picket line

UNIVERSITY lecturers union UCU has warned of ‘chaos on campus’ as a nationwide strike is looming in response to a full frontal attack on their pensions which would cut their pension by a savage 20%!

The University and College Union warned on Friday of chaos in universities as lectures and classes are cancelled during new year strike action if the row over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is not resolved.

UCU said proposals to remove the guaranteed level of pension benefits for hundreds of thousands of university staff were a bolt from the blue and that it would ballot members for nation wide industrial action in a ballot that will open Monday 27th November and close on Friday 19th January.

Under plans from Universities UK (UUK), guaranteed pension benefits through a defined benefit scheme would be replaced by a defined contribution scheme, where retirement income would depend on returns from money invested in the stock market. A study by financial advisors Tilney estimated that, given the same lifetime contributions, a defined contribution scheme would lead to a final pension worth only around 20% of that in the best defined benefit schemes.

The union will ask members to back industrial action aimed at a substantial disruption of around 50 of the largest and most well known universities in the UK including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and Manchester. 

The action will include a series of strikes during February, as well as other measures such as refusing to cover or reschedule classes, or cover for sick colleagues. Two rounds of cuts in USS benefits since 2011 have already left these staff in receipt of pensions which are worth less than those of school teachers and academics in non-USS universities. 

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: ‘After months of negotiations these plans are a bolt from the blue and would effectively destroy the USS scheme. It is categorically the worst proposal I have received from universities on any issue in 20 years of representing university staff.

‘These plans would remove members’ guarantees in retirement and leave them facing years of stress about whether their pension investments are returning enough income to live on. Staff always put their students first but their goodwill has been taken for granted for too long. If universities continue to pursue this action, they will face disruption on campus of a kind never seen before.

‘After months of prevarication, now is the time for vice-chancellors to face up to their responsibilities to staff and students and work with UCU to protect the hard-earned pension benefits of their staff.’

Eighty-seven per cent of UCU members who voted in a consultative ballot that closed last month said they would be prepared to take industrial action in order to defend the benefits of USS. Meanwhile the union has called for stricter regulation of for-profit colleges after they were found to be handing out bogus degrees for money.

The union was speaking after a BBC Panorama investigation into fraudulent abuse of student loans at a private for-profit college was aired last week. The union said the government should rethink plans to make it easier for for-profit providers to recruit students and access taxpayers’ money via the student loans system.

Private colleges have previously been involved in high-profile scandals and government investigations. UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: ‘The for-profit sector has been beset by scandals involving the fraudulent claiming of public money, yet the government’s response has been to make it even easier for them to recruit students and access taxpayers’ money.

‘Our higher education is an international success story and we cannot risk harming its reputation.

‘If we are going to have these for-profit companies in our higher education system they must be properly regulated. We need a powerful regulator that is able to deal with for-profit providers and recognises the extra risk they pose.’

• Up to 75 lecturers’ jobs are at risk at the University of Southampton across six departments in a restructuring process described by UCU as ‘rushed and dangerous’. The university says it wants to reduce staff costs, but it has already slashed the proportion of money it spends on staff. A decade ago 60% of the university’s income went on staff costs. That figure is now just 53%.

At the same time, senior salaries have ballooned, with the vice-chancellor Sir Christopher Snowden’s pay and benefits package now £352,000 and the number of staff earning over £100,000 rising to 137.

UCU says such a badly planned restructure risks causing damage to Southampton’s reputation and ability to offer top-class education. Music, for example, was the top-rated music department in the UK at the latest research excellence framework exercise in 2014.

The other affected departments are English, Law, Chemistry, Tribology and Social Sciences.

The university did receive the lowest mark in a recent teaching assessment exercise and the union says cutting staff is not the way to improve that score. New research has revealed that students cite their lecturers and the quality of teaching as the number one factor when it comes to judging excellence.

UCU members at the university are meeting to discuss the plans and their response to them.

The university intends to confirm the first cohort of staff to leave on 19th December, just ahead of the Christmas break.

UCU regional official Moray McAulay said: ‘These plans look rushed and dangerous. You cannot deliver world-leading education by cutting staff. Students cite lecturers as the key factor when it comes to teaching excellence so the university is unlikely to improve its teaching ranking by cutting staff. We will be to discuss our official response to the university’s plans, but nothing has been ruled out at this stage.’